How to sell good, inexpensive wines without pandering
By Genevieve Ko
For young people on tight budgets who want to learn more about wine, the points of entry can be discouraging.
Plenty of cheap wine is out there. But much of it is not very good.
Supermarket aisles are stocked with inexpensive, cunningly branded wines, packaged not to educate consumers about what’s inside the container but to appeal to one’s predilections, whether cute animals, titillation, desserts or an air of gloomy mystery.
Other wines, like those labeled “clean” or “gluten-free,” capitalize on consumer ignorance by making exaggerated claims or drawing fallacious contrasts (yes, virtually all wines are gluten-free).
Then you have wines that are good, honest renditions of historical styles, made using traditional methods. Sadly, these are often hard to pick out of the crowd because they require consumers to have some knowledge of both producers and wine labeling.
The situation is even more difficult for those who want to understand bottles from Old World regions, which can often bury young, English-speaking consumers under an avalanche of indecipherable terminology.
Enter Mary Taylor, a wine entrepreneur, who has made it her business to fill this void. She offers a simple, elegant solution, one that does not pander, condescend or dumb down.
Instead, she has come up with a packaging approach for European appellation wines that is clear, consistent and unembellished, displaying the provenance and the producer on clean, white labels, with an easy-to-read-font. All the wines in her white-label line are tied together by a subtle, subordinate “Mary Taylor” signature.
They are excellent values, priced at $13 to $19 and now available in 38 states, including New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, along with Canada, Sweden and Britain. Most important, the wines she has chosen are all good, forthright, unadorned representations of their terroirs.
It hardly seems like a revolutionary, or even novel, idea, to put together a similar combination of good wine, clear packaging and modest prices. And it raises the question of whether a brand can succeed simply by presenting the goods, without flummery.
To put it another way, for years the wine industry has rationalized inexpensive, bad wines as “gateway bottles,” steppingstones for consumers who eventually will graduate to the good stuff. It doesn’t matter what they drink, the thinking goes, so long as they are paying for wine.
But what if curious young people were offered legitimate gateway bottles, gently priced introductions that gave an appealing taste of the wider world beyond?
Taylor’s Bordeaux Rouge 2018 is a good example. Bordeaux is better known in its luxury guise, expensive bottles from prestigious areas like St.-Julien and Pomerol, aged for years and sipped reverently by connoisseurs. But Bordeaux is a huge region with myriad small producers making good (and bad) wines at every price.
This bottle, with the simple Bordeaux appellation, made by Jean Marc Barthez, head of a small cooperative in the greater Bordeaux area, is precisely the sort of wine you imagine the locals drinking, at least, those without the big chateaus. It’s supple, dry, fresh, mildly tannic, humble and direct, just a good, refreshing drink. I’ve seen it priced from $12 to $18.
Plenty of good, inexpensive Bordeaux is out there, but those bottles are hard to pick out from the dross. Taylor’s labeling system removes the mystery.
In a sense, she is capitalizing on one of the oldest tricks of wine-lovers, shopping by importer. No wine consumer, not even experts, can hope to know every producer. Instead, over time, they learn which importers’ tastes tend to align with their own. Remembering the names of several importers is a lot easier than memorizing dozens or hundreds of producers.
One might object that Taylor is franchising wine, removing the mystery like franchise food options at interstate rest stops rather than independent mom-and-pops. If anything, the opposite is true. She is instead making available in her line good, small, independent producers who otherwise might never have cut through the noise.
“The uniformity is the packaging, not the wine or the appellation,” she said. “My hope is that this convention creates a safe space for people to explore the unknown.”
Taylor made a conscious decision not to put the names of grapes on the front label, preferring instead to emphasize the geography, as historic wine-drinking countries have for ages.
“If Americans treated cheese like we treat wine, we would have cow, sheep and goat, not the lexicon we know and enjoy,” she said. “I spent a lot of time thinking about how to get Americans to drink geographically. I looked at the top-selling wines in America and thought that the true European appellation wine was sorely missing.”
Taylor has been toying with the idea since 2011, but felt unequipped to capitalize on it properly. So, in 2015 she refinanced the mortgage on her apartment in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, and went to business school at NYU, where she received an MBA in 2017.
In 2019, she made Mary Taylor Wine her full-time job. Currently, she offers 20 wines in her white-label line, 15 from France, two from Portugal, two from Italy and one from Spain. In addition, she offers four bottles at a lower price, $10 to $12, that display regional identifications rather than the more specific appellations.
One of these, a juicy, balanced, uncomplicated yet delicious red from Castilla y León, a large region northwest of Madrid, is terrific, made entirely of prieto picudo, an obscure grape grown virtually nowhere else in the world. It’s a great deal.
Taylor’s white-label wines include well-known appellations like Anjou, Beaujolais-Villages, Cahors, Muscadet Sèvre et Maine and Dão in Portugal.
But they also encompass obscure places that even French wine experts may rarely encounter, places like Buzet in southwestern France (a really nice red of 80% merlot and 20% cabernet sauvignon that is earthy and chewy) and Valençay, a Loire appellation better known for cheese than wine (the red — 35% gamay, 35% côt, as malbec is known there, and 30% pinot noir — is easygoing, with chalky flavors of red fruits).
“Unfamiliarity is sort of the point,” she said. “Our back labels lay out the varietals, offer a map and a little of the story. I hope to guide people into the unknown in an approachable way.”
All of the wines, she said, are from growers who farm conscientiously, even if they are not necessarily organic or biodynamic. They are made with minimal intervention, though they would not be called natural wines.
“I built this not to have an entree into the cool kids, but for people honestly trying to explore wines,” she said.
Practices that would not be tolerated by natural wine fans, like harvesting by machine rather than by hand, do not deter her.
“I don’t think a grad student on a budget would find this that important,” she said.
Many of the producers are women. Taylor feels that in small family operations, the man has always gotten most of the credit, despite the contributions of women. “When does she get recognized?” she asked.
How does she measure whether her vision is succeeding?
“A retailer in Georgia recently told my distributor that young adults were now asking for the Valençay by name,” she said. “He said, ‘Tell Mary her plan is working.’”